Photo credit: Benedicte Kurzen
Photo Credit: Benedicte Kurzen

By Wyatt Massey

Sexual and gender-based violence needs to be recognized as a public health issue in Haiti, says Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) leaders. The statement follows a recent report by the organization detailing the unmet physical and mental needs of survivors.

MSF opened the Pran Men’m clinic for survivors of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) in Port-au-Prince in 2015. Doctors there have treated almost 1,300 people, 97 percent of which were female and 77 percent younger than 25 years old. Another 83 percent of people treated by the clinic experienced rape.

The data underlines the widespread effect of SGBV said Dr. Carl Frédéric Casimir, MSF deputy medical coordinator in Haiti. More than half of the clinic’s patients are under 18 years old, according to the report. Many of these minors are survivors of rape. These kinds of attacks can cause unintended pregnancies, the spread of sexually-transmitted infections and negative mental health outcomes.

However, the report only has data on people who enter the clinic, the only one of its kind in the country. Data from metropolitan Port-au-Prince, or places beyond the city, is not available. “Official statistics do not exist on the scale of violence against young people and specifically violence against girls and women in Haiti,” the report says.

Fear of future attacks and stigma often keep victims from reporting attacks or seeking the help they need, Casimir said. “Sometimes people will be afraid that someone won’t trust what they just said.”

Often, the survivors know the attackers. In children under 10 years old, 71 percent were attacked in seemingly safe places, such as at school, home or with friends and family, according to the report.

“He was someone we knew,” the mother of a 13-year-old survivor told MSF workers. “He lived near us in the camp. Our tent was broken and had a big hole in it. He came through it.”

Medical services must be made more available to survivors, Casimir said. Having more clinics, as well as 24/7 hours of operation, would make access to care easier. More than a third of patients at the MSF clinic came between 6 p.m. and midnight, according to the report. Accessibility to care could also be increased by training current health care workers to recognize the signs of SGBV and provide proper mental and physical support for victims.

Another important step is increasing the number of shelters, which provide a safe place for survivors to start a new life, Dr. Casimir said. Other recommendations from the MSF report include increasing sexual education and access to emergency contraception, vaccines and medicine to stop sexually-transmitted infections.

But first, local and international leaders must understand the problem, Dr. Casimir said. “The most important thing should be the recognition of SGBV as a public health problem. It has to be a long term strategy and all actors could be part of it.”

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